By Adam Nayman
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023)
“Nothing more Satanic or artistic has been seen on the German stage,” wrote one critic of the premiere of Salome in Ganz, Austria in 1891. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross describes the unveiling of Richard Strauss’ opera—which climaxed, like Oscar Wilde’s source play and the New Testament chapter before it, with the bloody decapitation of John the Baptist—as a primal scene for 20th-century music: a Grand Guignol collision of ripe classicism and atonal modernity that left geniuses and punters alike stupefied. Among the attendees were Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini, and according to legend, a young Adolf Hitler; one note of dissent was sounded by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who snidely predicted that the show would do its composer “a lot of damage.” “Thanks to that damage,” retorted Strauss years later, “I was able to buy my villa in Garmisch!”
A radical crowd-pleaser may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Salome has been packing ’em for in for over a hundred years—including in Toronto, where Atom Egoyan mounted a stylistically wild adaptation for the Canadian Opera Company in 1996. Working with the kind of carte blanche afforded a hometown hero who’d conquered Cannes (en route to the Oscars) with The Sweet Hereafter (1996), Egoyan turned the material on its (severed) head: his Salome was an Expressionist nightmare, all slanted angles and sinister symbolism, with a nightmarish, shadow-played rape scene and surreal, insinuating video projections playing up an incestuous subtext. These choices went beyond provocations—they placed Egoyan’s adaptation in the sweet spot between fidelity and invention.
The image of Egoyan as the heavy hitter of Canadian popular culture was pervasive in the mid-’90s. Whether it was all enough to afford the director a villa in Muskoka is a matter for his accountant, but in retrospect, the one-two punch of Salome and The Sweet Hereafter represented an undeniable peak—a claim which would necessarily consign everything since to some level or other of a vast and interestingly stratified valley. Spelunking through latter-day Egoyan is, to say the least, an adventure, but even at his lower points—like, say, the miscalibrated West Memphis Three docudrama Devil’s Knot (2013)—the director has remained resolutely and recognizably himself, not least of all in his sustaining, almost religious faith in rickety, vertiginous narrative structures, edifices testifying to a loyal, endearingly unfashionable belief in dramaturgy itself.
This staunch constancy (as opposed to consistency) makes Egoyan’s return to Strauss’ opera, both on stage with COC earlier this year and onscreen via the new drama Seven Veils, feel less like a nostalgic victory lap around his glory days than an organic—and welcome—addition to his filmography. With apologies to 2019’s gratifyingly weird Guest of Honour, which featured David Thewlis in high dudgeon as the haughtiest food inspector in Hamilton, Ontario, Seven Veils is Egoyan’s most absorbing movie in years, and probably his most brazenly self-reflexive since the first swells of the Toronto New Wave. Indeed, given its themes of inheritance and spectatorship, it could easily swap titles with either Next of Kin (1984) or Family Viewing (1987), or, in light of its subplots about thespian ambition, Speaking Parts (1989).
Egoyan’s work does not lack for acts of self-portraiture (c.f. his own indelible performance as a controlling, camcorder-wielding pervert in Calendar ), but arguably none of his surrogates have been as revealing as Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried, returning to Atom ages after 2009’s Chloe), the theatre director who’s been invited to Toronto to stage Salome—which is to say, revive her late mentor’s production of Salome, which looks and sounds exactly like Egoyan’s and features the same cast (including Michael Kupfer-Redecky and Ambur Braid). Jeanine is doubly haunted by unsettling memories of Charles, the project’s original and much-acclaimed auteur, and her recently deceased father, whose stylized home movies of Jeanine as a child were integrated into the show’s mise en scène; in her mind, the two men could be doppelgangers, or maybe even two sides of the same patriarchal coin.
On another level, Jeanine is a vessel for Egoyan’s own feelings about stepping into an artistic lineage encompassing so many brilliant predecessors. Caught between fetishizing and scrutinizing the legacies of the men who shaped—or maybe groomed—her, Jeanine goes about her task in a state of ardent, impassioned paralysis. During rehearsals, she instinctively gravitates towards the small, hidden bridge in the Four Seasons Centre that connects the space between the spectators and the stage, a lovely found metaphor that’s all the more potent for being multifaceted.
Metaphors—if not big, honking metafives—are Egoyan’s stock in trade, and Seven Veils finds him flexing rhetorical muscles all over the place (e.g., there’s an entire subplot about the creation of a gory prosthetic skull). He’s also clearly prodding cancel culture: one way to look at Seven Veils is as a more politically correct alternative to Tár (2022), in which the female auteur bridling under the anxiety of influence is a survivor, rather than a perpetrator, of individual and/or institutional exploitation. As such, the narrative is structured not as a downward spiral towards (legal or existential) comeuppance, but as a hard-won, uphill battle for catharsis. (It’s also considerably less luxurious than Todd Field’s film, suggesting once again that cultural mavens are more likely to own villas—and fly private jets—in Europe than in Canada.) But just because Seven Veils isn’t a bleak, attenuated joke à la Tár doesn’t mean it isn’t funny: it’s wry enough around the edges, in fact, that all of those metaphors stop feeling like hard work and accrue a certain entertainment value. Call it heady pleasure.
Cinema Scope: Talk to me about Salome…
Atom Egoyan: It’s an ancient text. In the film, Jeanine refers to it as the first sex crime in Biblical history, which is not quite true, but it’s an interesting idea. The actual story in the Bible is sort of vague, so it was very open to interpretation, which ended up with it being embraced in the 19th century by a number of artists, including Flaubert, Moreau, and Wilde.
Without getting too academic, I think it has to do with the whole concept of the femme fatale. There’s also this notion of John the Baptist as a transitional figure between the Old and New Testaments. Obviously, he’s anticipating a world where there will be some degree of tolerance and love, but it’s within this very Old Testament framework of things being black and white—a world of fear and obedience. There’s a lot there for artists to interpret. Wilde has this whole elaboration in his play that the reason Salome becomes obsessed with John is because of the way he speaks of her mother, and there’s obviously an issue that she has with her mother and our stepfather. In our production of Salome, we really focus on that; it becomes clear that there’s a psychodrama taking place within the family. It’s beyond what Wilde might have imagined, but I think it’s there somewhere in his place. His play was rarely performed—it’s not like The Importance of Being Earnest or Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s got this incredibly rich language in which Salome tries to describe that which she cannot have, and what’s being withheld is John the Baptist’s attention. But anyway, you have a lot of 19th-century male artists using this story and retelling it, leading up to Strauss and his opera, which offers a new approach to musical theatre.
Scope: All those layers of anxiety are present in the movie: Jeanine seems to be trying to reconcile her version of Salome with all those predecessors, including Charles, whose contemporary, acclaimed version of the opera is, of course, identical to your own. It’s a story about, not ownership, but maybe stewardship.
Egoyan: Stewardship is a better word! What’s fascinating is that when I was first approached to do Salome, the COC had a very traditional production—it was actually laughably literal, and painful to watch. The public at the time had that as a reference: like, they knew what a more traditional approach looked like, which helped them to see mine as a more radical production. If I’m not mistaken, ours was the first time that “The Dance of the Seven Veils” was used as a flashback. In the other productions, the singer also had to do the dance, and it was a tough eight minutes. There have been singers who are also dancers, but for the most part…it’s just a rare opportunity, in this incredibly taut piece of drama, to just focus on eight minutes of extraordinary music. And it struck me that using this sequence as a gateway into Salome’s past was very exciting.
Now, in 2023, you can go on YouTube and see other productions, and it’s like this is how it’s meant to be done. And it’s unusual because it means taking something from 1996, which was quite shocking then, and presenting it now, when things like trigger warnings and sensitivities are more part of the discussion. The question of stewardship shifts towards responsibility. I knew I needed to redo it, but I couldn’t totally redo it: there isn’t the budget or the rehearsal time. So then there were all of these anxieties—I think that’s the right word—about presenting this show to a new audience. So I created the character of Jeanine, who was picking up the torch, from me. That became very rich for me. She becomes the Seventh Veil.
Scope: A veil is just a layer, right?
Egoyan: It’s funny, I was talking to a friend and when they heard the title for the movie, they were like, “Oh yeah, ‘The Seven Veils of Illusion’ in Buddhist philosophy?” I wasn’t thinking about that, but it’s interesting. Oscar Wilde coined the term “seven veils,” and I do wonder why. There was some influx at the same time of Eastern ideologies, so maybe it was part of it. But we don’t know.
Scope: I think about it more in the sense that, historically, women are mythologized as these recessive, withholding, mysterious figures. Whether you’re talking about a romantic comedy or a film noir, there’s a feeling that women are unknowable, and the “Dance of the Seven Veils” becomes this combination of psychological and physical striptease. There’s something lurid about it: you strip away a woman’s complexities and you get to see her body, or vice versa. Your Salome plays up that idea, but also subverts it: nobody gets off the hook.
Egoyan: So then you go back to John the Baptist. There’s mystery and there’s also misogyny: if you can’t understand something, you condemn it, out of fear. In our production—in Jeanine’s production—John the Baptist never looks at Salome; he can’t even address her, even in the context of love and tolerance and openness. The female is a symbol of decadence, or a gateway towards it, and that influence has to be tamed, controlled, and held back. That’s what John the Baptist is all about, and why he contends with Herodias. It’s unclear if he’s delusional or rooted in something real. If you watch Ken Russell’s film Salome’s Last Dance (1988), he makes it clear that she’s a very lascivious figure.
Scope: Russell is one of the great sensationalists, and he repeats himself. So do you, to an extent: your Salome is built around home movies, which are very unsettling and central to the architecture of the narrative, and that becomes true of Seven Veils as well, since the recordings Jeanine is borrowing from Charles’ production are of herself, taken by her father. And there’s also the subplot about the making of John the Baptist’s prosthetic head, where the video footage becomes a record of a different kind of transgression. You’re always interested in these things—they become part of your stewardship of the material.
Egoyan: My father took a lot of home movies of our life in Egypt, because he was very nostalgic about it. They ended up being projected on the walls of our house in Victoria, B.C., and there were images that I’m only now coming to understand were quite traumatic for me. I’ve never talked about this before, but there’s a video of me being put on the shoulders of a large ape in the Cairo Zoo, and there’s a zoom up to me and I’m clearly terrified. I’m basically a young primate, and I know I should not be on top of another kind of primate, and there’s some sort of danger there. But it’s also very amusing, I suppose, for the person who’s filming it, maybe as a way of exercising some kind of parental control. My father has since passed, and probably wouldn’t have remembered that piece of footage, but I’ve been watching it for a long time, and only recently I’ve come to recognize it as a moment of trauma.
I was a child of parents making very curatorial choices about what they were shooting, because of 8mm film being very expensive. I lived through the shift to digital as well. So I took what was happening and put it into the movies—into characters who were choosing to record their lives, and to share them, or to erase them. When I made Next of Kin there was a therapy clinic at Bay and Gerrard in Toronto where we did some shooting, and this family therapist who worked there was obsessed with the idea of taping primal moments that you could then play out with the family, and have them replay them after, and there would be a breakthrough. I have a book called Video Techniques and Family Therapy which is kind of my Bible.
Scope: I think of the fact that my own kids, who are six and two, are never going to live in a world without instant replay of whatever they did two seconds ago. I also wonder how much all those iPhone videos and Instagram stories are going to stand in for their memories—and for mine.
Egoyan: A while back, I wrote a piece for Raymond Bellour for Trafic, an essay called “The Smile of Arshile.” I made a video for my son’s first birthday, which was a letter written by his mother and I talking about why he’s called Arshile. Arsinée is speaking Armenian; I’m speaking in English, and the camera is moving closer and closer onto his face with this weird macro lens. My essay is about whether kids of his generation would expect all of that—would they feel deprived if they didn’t have recordings of their childhood, because it was a common currency and a way of referring to what their experience was? Would there be a strange kind of class gap between those children who had access to that technology and the ones who didn’t? I’m still obsessed with that idea.
Scope: That kind of ethnology has sort of become second nature by now…
Egoyan: Our relations to things have become accelerated, and we’re still trying to figure out how to cope with that. We have moments in our lives that are so easily preserved that they can become fetishized and examined in ways beyond memory. In Seven Veils, there’s a play between hard evidence and imagination. The videos that Jeanine made with her father…we don’t know the exact nature of those videos. They seem odd and kind of creepy. But we don’t know how far it went. We also don’t know if what we’re seeing recreated is a product of her imagination, or a way of addressing things she may have witnessed. It’s murky, and that’s the space the viewer has to negotiate.
There’s also the murkiness of the conflation between Jeanine’s father and Charles, or between the actor playing John the Baptist and the character himself. Or between Jeanine’s husband and her new lover, who’s an understudy. There’s probably seven layers of male relationships that she’s negotiating. It’s all incredibly fertile and full of possibility, especially when you have a performer, an actor who you can trust, who can seize on it and explore it.
Scope: There’s a throwaway line in the movie where Jeanine says something about looking younger than she is, and it stuck with me—partly because a lot of Amanda Seyfried’s strongest associations are with teen movies like Mean Girls (2004), but it’s also important for the character. Jeanine evokes something childlike, but leveraged against experience and wisdom…
Egoyan: Sometimes you just get to work with people at a certain point in their lives. I was blessed to have worked with Sarah Polley on Exotica (1994), because when I was writing The Sweet Hereafter, I knew she was at the right stage to play Nicole. Sometimes the jury is out on things. There are people who have slammed Alison Lohman in Where the Truth Lies (2005), but she occupied a particular space then where I thought she could play the 12-year-old version of herself and the mid-twenties version.
I can tell you why I’ve been excited about every casting decision I’ve ever made; I’m not saying I was always excited about the right things. There’s always a risk. I was aware of the risk here, and that’s why I added the line you mentioned: “Well, I’m older than you think.” It’s about marking space where she can make a transition. Chloe was 15 years ago. Amanda’s a remarkable actress: she’s able to absorb any direction and take it and go as far as possible with it and to make it empathetic. There are a lot of things that Jeanine does that are not necessarily likeable or easy to identify with, but Amanda makes it all accessible to us, which is what a star does. We had a great experience on Chloe, no matter what people think of the film, and we promised we’d do something else. It’s heartbreaking that she may not be here for the premiere.
Scope: There are a lot of movies directed by actors at the festival this year…
Egoyan: Do you think I should change the credit? Or share it?
Scope: She is sort of playing you, right? The production Jeanine is directing is your production…
Egoyan: In 35 years, our Salome hasn’t changed fundamentally. From the point of view of the COC, they want what was there before. But as artists, we can’t help but re-evaluate. So some of the things that Jeanine is saying, and the ways that she’s behaving, are as I would. I’m physical with my actors on stage. I do go running up on stage. This is all on the shoulders of stories I’ve heard from people who are close to me. I’ve invited people to see the production, and to see what I’ve done with stories they may have participated in. Again, it’s about responsibility. Charles choosing Jeanine to remount the show is very generous, but it’s also a bit of a curse, right? Does he know that asking her to do this is going to lead to these reconfigurations in her own life? Was he aware of the dynamics of his wife, who runs the opera company, and Jeanine, and what they’re both going to be subjected to? There’s going to be so much tension and antagonism. A lot of this gets paralleled in the story of Clea (Rebecca Lidiard) and her run-in…as artists, we operate best when there is freedom, and we’re liberated to do what we do. But there are also structures which place limitations on expression. I think Jeanine is an avatar of all those things. But also, as Jeanine’s mentor—whom we never see!—Charles also has aspects of my own personality. My God, it’s so complicated!
Scope: That’s OK.
Egoyan: You could say that Jeanine has been somehow groomed by her father, and also by Charles. And now she’s been thrown back into a world where she has to confront both of them in a very public way, in front of the administration of the opera and a cast of singers, some of whom are more responsive to her than others. There’s a moment when I think Amanda nailed it, and I was in tears—when Jeanine stops the orchestra rehearsal to give one last piece of direction, and the people onstage are baffled by what she’s saying. She’s totally outside the boundaries there. You do not stop an orchestra rehearsal, but she’s so emotionally invested at that point. It’s excruciating for her that something isn’t right. She knows that something is being misinterpreted. That’s the crazy difference between directing for the stage and for film. The film moment is preserved—for stage actors or opera actors, you direct them up till opening night, but then it’s their show. They can do whatever they want. Sometimes directors don’t go to performances because it’s too painful. You have a stage manager who’s clocking it, trying to get people to stand in the same places so they’re lit properly, but the temperament of the whole thing evolves in its own way. Jeanine is negotiating a space between something that’s already there and something she can assert.
Scope: That in-between is evoked in the space of the hidden bridge—this little walkway that joins the audience to the stage. That inclusion, and that metaphor, must have come out of your experience in that specific theatre doing Salome…
Egoyan: The bridge disappears as soon as you go into production. It’s there during the process, so you have easy access to the stage so you can do physical direction. And yes, it’s a beautiful little physical metaphor that exists. It’s in the first image of the film, and she makes references to it at other times as well.
Scope: When you were talking about freedom and liberation earlier—and about the interpretive murkiness of those videos of the young Jeanine, both inside and outside of the world of Salome—it got me thinking that one of the things your movie is about, and which makes it feel contemporary as well as timeless, is that ambiguity is the lifeblood of art. Which means that art, as practice and as a spectatorial experience, cannot be safe, right? Making art is very unsafe.
Egoyan. It’s very uncertain, and it can distort people. When we did The Adjuster (1991), there was this little kid who plays Arsinée’s son in the film; during a week on set, he transformed from this sweet little child into something monstrous because of all the attention he got. He must have been trying to calibrate his understanding of adult behaviour against the limits of the conservative family I’m sure he came from. He was a child, so he was a sponge. He was absorbing everything, and it made him a different human being during that week.
As a parent, you can do certain things that you think are instructive. I think there is something quite instructive about blindfolding a child and putting them in a forest, and saying, “OK, notice how your senses are heightened.” If the child has said that they want to be an artist, and the parent has some frustrated ambitions, that can’t help but become projected onto the child. I’m a product of that, my sister and I both. Our parents are artists, but that never worked out for them in Canada. They were terrified of the directions we were taking in our lives, but they tried to impart things they had learned. Parents cannot help but do that out of love, and also out of fear. Then it morphs into something else, and becomes ominous and puts pressure on a child. The film doesn’t go into those details, but not only has whatever happened that inspired Charles’ version of Salome, he shared it with someone else. That’s part of how we control our narratives—we enhance them, like I just did with you and that scene in the Cairo zoo. I can’t locate exactly how traumatic that was; I can project onto it, though, and it becomes part of a story that I’m telling you now. It makes me wonder why I’ve never told that story before.
Scope: Controlling narrative becomes very explicit in the subplot about the character of Clea, who’s making the severed head prosthesis, and the actor playing John the Baptist. There’s this very compromising video of the two of them that has major implications for everybody, including the opera company, and these scenes seem to be addressing aspects of cancel culture—or maybe the relationship between the media, which enjoys one kind of narrative, and art, which is about how those narratives tell certain truths about the world.
Egoyan: There’s a moment where Clea realizes that what happened is something that can be bartered. It raises the issue of what is restorative justice, actually. Is justice that somebody gets criminally charged, or that she is now in a position to offer somebody she loves very dearly an opportunity? And that other person is the one who’s appalled that Clea isn’t actually dealing with the trauma of being attacked, and instead using it as some sort of leverage?
This is what I find so fascinating as a dramatist—when characters don’t have access to everything that informs the decisions of other people. I thought Guest of Honour was an examination of that. The characters are in a trap because they can’t tell the whole story—because it’s not the right time, or the right way. If they’re not told in the right time or the right way, the stories become frozen, or distorted or unbelievable. People say that the things that happen in my films are unbelievable, but I think human beings are pretty much capable of anything. In my world, nothing is unbelievable—anything is possible. In traditional dramaturgy, though, you have to deal with the audience’s expectations about how people should or should not behave.
Scope: When you made The Adjuster, you said it was about people doing unbelievable things in believable ways, I think.
Egoyan. I remember that. In that film, again, someone is doing something for love: a woman has a sister who is depressed, who has no access to the culture around her, so she brings her sister the images she’s banned from the culture. It’s crazy. Maybe this is what’s so interesting about Salome, that it’s all about love. It’s a very weird love story, and there are a lot of weird love stories happening in Seven Veils. We have delusions about the people we fall in love with because we are in love—there is no rational perspective. It’s the nature of being in that state. Parental love is also full of miscalculations where you think you’re doing the right thing, but you may not be.
Scope: Saying “I love you” is supposed to be reassuring, but it doesn’t protect anybody against anything.
Egoyan: It’s about how you say it. It’s great to make a statement like, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But you could also say there’s nothing to be afraid of.